By Peter Fairley / InvestigateWest
After more than a decade of the supposedly eco-friendly Pacific Northwest and British Columbia falling short on pledges to fight climate change, a new blueprint emerged this month for how to eliminate all but a sliver of fossil-fuel emissions.
The 428-page plan by Washington state outlines how to make a wholesale shift to renewable energy and meet some of the most ambitious climate-protection goals on the planet. It calls for building a regional network of solar and wind energy stations and transmission lines, allowing sharing of power across the western U.S. and Canada.
Much of that renewable energy would be used to produce hydrogen, replacing fossil fuels used by trucks, ferries and industrial facilities, among others.
“We are really primed to move,” said Eileen V. Quigley, director of the Clean Energy Transition Institute, which was hired by the Washington Department of Commerce to sketch out how to most cost-effectively transform the economy from fossil fuels to clean energy.
Quigley’s institute commissioned sophisticated modeling from San Francisco-based consultancy Evolved Energy Research and also sought advice from more than 150 technical experts and community advocates and a 27-member state advisory committee.
Washington’s plan calls for doubling the state’s electricity supply through regional action.
“We can really do a lot in terms of keeping rates affordable and service reliable if we can operate the electricity system on more of a west-wide basis,” said Glenn Blackmon, head of Washington’s Energy Policy Office.
Strategies crucial to Washington’s plans include universal broadband access, smarter land-use planning and expanded public transit, all of which reduce energy demand by cutting down on travel in personal vehicles. And, for those fossil fuel uses that can’t be easily plugged in, the strategy requires an entirely new industry: so-called “green hydrogen” produced by zapping water with renewable electricity.
Green hydrogen is a renewable fuel that can be stored and concentrated, providing a reliable stream of clean energy to replace coal and gas burned in concrete plants and other heavy industries, and to replace diesel in big vehicles such as long-haul trucks and ferries.
Energy experts worldwide see green hydrogen as a crucial building block for “decarbonization,” eliminating carbon-dioxide emissions that are a primary cause of climate disruption. For Washington, it also offers an economic engine for rural counties, according to Blackmon, who noted that utilities in Eastern Washington with surplus hydropower already have “aggressive” plans to make green hydrogen.
Finally, the plan pledges state intervention to ensure that low-income and historically disadvantaged communities have access to capital to upgrade homes and businesses, for example, or to cover the up-front price premium on an electric car.
It’s all economically affordable. According to the modeling behind the plan, spending on energy in a decarbonizing Washington would remain within its historic range, about 5% to 7% of the state’s economy through 2050.
Cheaper renewable energy is already here
Accelerating development and use of renewable energy is also core to decarbonization plans in Washington’s neighbors to the north and south, Oregon and British Columbia — a region that, taken together, is frequently dubbed Cascadia. Changing energy economics boosts the chances for success across the Cascadia region. Cleaner technologies keep getting cheaper.
These days equipment such as electric vehicles and heat pumps cost less than their fossil-fueled forerunners over the life of the products. Solar power’s cost has plummeted more than fivefold since 2010.
And fossil fuels’ purveyors have less grip on markets — and politicians — as demand for coal, oil and gas weakens and global protests erode their social standing.
“In 2007 we used to talk about Big Oil and King Coal. No one says King Coal anymore, and oil is faltering,” said KC Golden, one of the founders of Seattle-based nonprofit Climate Solutions and a board member with international activist group 350.org.
The question is: Will Cascadia’s governments actually follow through?
The challenge for Governors Kate Brown of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington is finding dollars in COVID-tightened state budgets to accelerate carbon-cutting. Clean technologies often cost more up front, and it will take state money to speed their deployment and ensure that all citizens benefit. But in both states, legislators who have long held up cost-effective climate policies remain in their seats.
British Columbia faces a very different challenge. Premier John Horgan’s New Democratic Party secured a commanding majority in fall 2020 elections. But British Columbia has a growing oil and gas production industry that Horgan has personally championed as a source of jobs and revenue.
King Coal may be dethroned, and Big Oil weakened, but in British Columbia the oil and gas producers and their employees still carry clout, noted Karen Tam Wu, British Columbia director for the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based climate and energy think tank. As Wu put it: “The lure of royalties and the lobbying power of Big Oil is very strong.”
Decarbonization road map
Among the three governments’ plans, Washington’s marks the most dramatic shift. The state that set Cascadia’s weakest emissions goals over a decade ago raised its sights to world-class performance early last year.
The Washington Legislature scrapped the state’s 2008 mandate, which called for halving emissions by 2050, from 1990 levels, which is barely half of the scale of reductions targeted under the Paris Climate Agreement. In its place, legislators approved an aggressive net-zero goal: only 5% of 1990-level greenhouse-gas emissions would be tolerated in 2050. (And even that 5% would need to be recaptured via reforestation projects or machines sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.)
Washington’s new goals come with interim targets, too, starting with a 45% cut by 2030. That will require a lot of push, because recent modeling suggests that Washington could still be pumping out the equivalent of 84 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2030. The state’s goal requires cutting emissions to 50 metric tons.
The new targets came without new authorities to actually drive carbon cuts, leading critics to declare the 2020 legislative session a “comprehensive failure.”
And all signs point to rough politics ahead in the Washington Legislature this year. For the session that started earlier this month, Inslee is again seeking to pass new pollution-cutting programs with well-established opposition. One is a fuel standard — akin to those in place in Oregon and British Columbia — to ratchet down the carbon-intensity of Washington’s gasoline and diesel fuels. Industry lobbyists in Olympia have repeatedly fended off such a low-carbon fuel standard. The governor also proposes a ban on natural gas heating in new buildings whose 2030 cutoff date is too late for some activists.
And the governor proposed some controversial means of raising revenues, including yet another push for “cap and trade” — a system of pollution controls and charges that has repeatedly failed in both the Washington and Oregon legislatures. That has split the Washington Legislature’s climate-protection advocates, with some backing a rival revenue package combining a tax on greenhouse gas emissions and economic recovery bonds.
British Columbia’s gassy carbon bulge
Oregon Gov. Brown faces many of the same budget and authority gaps that have bedeviled Inslee. Not so across the international border, where Premier Horgan’s parliamentary majority in the British Columbia Legislature gives him leeway to enact laws and raise Canadian dollars. However, his government faces a growing gap between emissions and 2030 goals — a gap that is exacerbated by fossil fuel development.
For nearly a decade, activists across California and Cascadia defeated proposed megaprojects to export Western coal, oil and gas through Pacific ports. That so-called “Thin Green Line” of activism broke in British Columbia in 2018, partly due to Horgan, when the Trans Mountain petroleum pipeline expansion and a pair of natural gas megaprojects got green lights.
Trans Mountain moved forward when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nationalized the project. Horgan took credit for the gas developments: a $13 billion liquefied natural gas terminal up the British Columbia coast in Kitimat, and a $6.6 billion pipeline linking it to northeastern British Columbia’s gas fracking fields.
Oil and gas production contributed half of the provinces’ industrial emissions in 2018 and have risen 8% since 2007. That’s a significant challenge to British Columbia’s goal to cut emissions 40% by 2030, compared to 2007.
In December, a government report said rising emissions from industry and transportation meant British Columbia could miss its 2030 target by nearly half.
Wu, of the Pembina Institute, called the recent report “sobering” — not least because it failed to spell out steps to close British Columbia’s emissions gap, as the government had promised.
Calculations by the Pembina Institute confirm the long-term scale of the challenge. It found that a planned liquefied natural gas terminal in Kitimat would release the equivalent of 3 million to 4 million tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide per year. Emissions from producing and delivering its gas would add another 5 million tons. Translation: That one project could produce two-thirds of the greenhouse gases allowable in 2050 under British Columbia law.
George Heyman, British Columbia minister of environment and climate change strategy, offered no apologies during an interview this month with InvestigateWest. He said the province’s gas industry, including LNG development, provides revenue for public programs and jobs. “We thought there was some room within a credible climate plan for some development and we approved (LNG Canada) on that basis,” said Heyman.
Heyman predicted that emissions-cutting programs legislated in 2018 would soon reverse British Columbia’s rising emissions trend. Those include:
• Tightening the “low carbon fuel standard” that is trimming the carbon content of British Columbia’s fuel supply.
• Rebates for zero-emission vehicles and a ban on new gasoline and diesel cars after 2040.
• A mandated 45% cut in emissions of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, by oil and gas producers by 2025 (compared to 2014).
British Columbia may also get a hand from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who recently vowed to ratchet up Canada’s nationwide carbon tax requirements. Starting in 2023, when releasing a ton of carbon dioxide should already cost polluters $50, Trudeau promises to begin adding $15 a year to reach $170 per ton in 2030. Heyman estimated that Trudeau’s carbon tax boost could close roughly half of British Columbia’s emissions gap.
Getting beyond business as usual
Activists are calling for more public pressure to keep Cascadia’s leaders focused on climate action, citing signs of continued half-measures.
For example, take the new I-5 bridge across the Columbia River between Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. Patrick Mazza, a longtime Seattle-based climate policy analyst and activist, noted that the states’ plan for a larger bridge will accelerate sprawl from nearby Portland into Washington’s Clark County.
“That is really a poster for the inertia of the past continuing into the present,” says Mazza. “We’re not living in a climate-emergency world. That has not been absorbed into the day to day operations of bureaucracies or most businesses.”
The Seattle-based Sightline Institute think tank recently called out a mismatch between state emissions goals and growth plans from Cascadia’s gas utilities. Washington and Oregon’s largest gas utilities, Puget Sound Energy and NW Natural, anticipate rising gas use through 2040. Burning gas currently causes nearly one-quarter of Washington’s carbon emissions, and more than one-third of Oregon’s.
Mazza played his part in the Thin Green Line movement, getting arrested blocking an oil train in Everett in 2014. He landed himself in prison once again in 2019 protest disrupting a Chase Bank branch in Seattle. That campaign is viewed as having helped inspire Chase’s recently announced plan to restrict financing for fossil fuel developments.
Mazza calls getting hauled off to jail “the most valuable thing I can do today.” This year, however, he said Cascadia’s politicians need to hear a more positive message amidst the ongoing pandemic and budget crises that threaten to stall climate action.
“‘Kill fossil fuels’ is a negative. We need a positive. Look at how many people are unemployed right now,” said Mazza. “Whatever we do has to have a huge jobs message.”
Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia is a year-long project by non-profit news organizations in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Led by Seattle-based InvestigateWest, the project also will include contributions from The Tyee in Vancouver, British Columbia; national news site Grist.org; Crosscut.com in Seattle; and Jefferson Public Radio in Oregon.